At a convention of the Utah Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1900, one woman spoke in favor of a ballot measure that would allow the people to write laws through referenda and initiatives.
If adopted, she said, the people would be masters of the city council and other office holders. Until then, she said, the opposite was true.
Such arguments were typical at the time, but many considered them radical. When Utah voters decided to amend the state constitution to allow initiatives and referenda, which had been placed on the ballot through the relentless efforts of Rep. Sherman S. Smith, a populist from Ogden, Utah became only the second state in the nation to allow its people to pass laws.
That may seem like ancient history, but it perhaps never has been more relevant than this year.
Today, six petitions are circulating in Utah, each supported by groups hoping to persuade voters to pass laws the Legislature has declined to approve. More than a century after Smith, when members of women’s clubs and others railed against the inequity of power in state government, the arguments haven’t changed much. The tug-of-war between the people and their representatives continues.
Utah is a republic, where elected representatives propose bills that are subject to hearings, amendments, floor debates and ultimately the approval or veto of the governor. But it also becomes a direct democracy when proponents of a particular piece of legislation can meet the requirements to get on the ballot.
That should remain an important, but rare, option.
Clearly, the value of republican government, with its checks and moderating processes, should take precedence in Utah. It leads to the best sort of lawmaking, with debates forging compromises and with all segments of the population having a say.
But initiatives have their place as escape valves for pent-up public frustrations at legislative inaction. They also, by their very presence, can pressure lawmakers into taking action.
The key is finding a balance that keeps direct democracy from getting out of hand. State lawmakers have done a reasonable job of finding that, although this year’s initiatives could test that notion.
Here’s how it works: If the Lieutenant Governor’s Office approves an initiative for consideration, organizers must hold at least seven public hearings, each in specific regions of the state. Organizers then must collect signatures equaling 10 percent of the voters in the last presidential election in 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts. That’s more than 113,000 signatures, many from rural areas where people live a considerable distance apart.
Representative government may be unduly influenced by well-heeled lobbyists and special interests that have greater access to lawmakers than do regular citizens, but Utah’s initiative rules tend to restrict petition drives to well-heeled organizations capable of hiring paid signature-gatherers.
That may not please many populists, but it may be the only way to keep initiatives from overwhelming voters, as they sometimes have in California.
Utah was the second state to approve citizen initiatives, but it never has embraced the idea wholeheartedly. After voters added it to the state constitution in 1900, lawmakers waited 16 years to pass a law to implement it.
That law required people to sign petitions in the presence of a judge or some other officer authorized to administers oaths — an impossible burden. Not until 1960, after court challenges changed the rules, did Utahns finally pass an initiative.
If all current petition drives succeed, voters this November will consider whether to pass laws raising taxes for public education, legalizing medical marijuana, establishing an independent political redistricting process, setting up direct primary elections for party nominations, expanding Medicaid coverage and allowing parties to nominate through caucuses and conventions.
That could result in a heavy burden for voters.
Despite what that women’s club member said 118 years ago, the ballot box already made voters the masters of city council members and other office holders. Initiatives give the public extra leverage. But in order to protect a deliberative and representative process, this must be kept in check.